Toronto’s towers have grown up, but not its citizenry. Though the real issue is how our buildings behave at street level, the city and its planners remain fixated on height.
“There needs to be intensification,” argues architect Bruce Kuwabara. “What we have to think about are ways to create a vertical urban life that’s livable. It isn’t just about the view. It has to be about how buildings work at the base and how they contribute to the public realm.”
Kuwabara’s firm, KPMB, is one of several participating in the exhibition, “Too Tall?” The show, on display at Harbourfront Centre, 235 Queens Quay W., until Dec. 31, addresses Toronto’s fear of heights. Though the city has more highrise development underway than any other city in North America — there are 132 such projects in Toronto, compared to 88 in Mexico City, 82 in Chicago — that has only stiffened local resistance.
Toronto’s pre-eminent condo designer, Peter Clewes of architectsAlliance, agrees with Kuwabara.
“We’re creating a new urban fabric,” he says. “Tall buildings make sense in the North American city when they’re aggregated. All the debate is about height, but it should be about how well these towers knit in at ground level. When you’re right down on the street, height is irrelevant.”
And as architect Richard Witt of RAW Design, points out, “The only way to build sustainable cities is with density. Density allows us to cut consumption and reduce pollution.”
At a time of growing environmental uncertainty, sustainability is more crucial than ever. For the first time in decades, at least since the end of World War II, cities are starting to realize that they need to be compact, coherent and connected. Toronto’s former planning chief Paul Bedford has a simple test for the successful 21st-century city: Can you live without a car?
That’s why the most remarkable development in the Toronto condo market isn’t the height of the tallest towers, but that one of them — a 42-storey complex on University Ave. north of Dundas St. W. — will be built without parking. Though city planners opposed it, this is the project that marks the beginning of Toronto’s coming of age. For all its flaws — and its backward-looking mayor — the city has achieved a new level of urbanism.
The focus on the base has already changed how condos are designed and built. In most new projects, tall, thin, towers sit atop podiums of between two and five floors. These podiums are where buildings meet the city and become part of the urban fabric. This is space we all share. This is also space for shops, restaurants, bars, art galleries and so on.
“The thing that characterizes the best projects,” Kuwabara explains, “is that they have substantial programs at ground level . . . an animation strategy.”
Maple Leaf Square is a good example of how tall buildings can contribute to the public realm. Tucked in behind Air Canada Centre around Bremner Blvd., this trio of towers exhibit a clear sense of the larger context. Though the streetscape could have been taken to a finer degree of finish — why are there no benches? — the square feels genuinely public. The critical factor here, of course, is an arena that draws thousands. A giant video screen, public art, extra-wide sidewalks and a degree of architectural porosity add up to a thoroughly urban precinct.
Keep in mind, too, that ACC and Maple Leaf Square are fully accessible by the underground PATH system and transit, a reminder of the wisdom of putting the venue downtown, not a site in the hinterland accessible only by car.
“We’re operating in a weird planning context,” Clewes argues. “The province has mandated density and the city has amended its Official Plan, but this hasn’t trickled down to the planners. Planners are an obstacle; they see themselves as advocates of public opinion.”
Speaking of his Pure Spirit complex at the Distillery District, Clewes says. “There was never a conversation about the base, only about height.”
That’s why city planners recommended against the building, among the most urban-minded of any tall condo in Toronto.
Still there’s a general sense in this city that height is bad, that the planners’ job is to cut these towers down to size. It’s an emotional response, if not the tall poppy syndrome, certainly the tall tower complex. As a rule of thumb, the city reduces the height of a proposed building by 10 per cent. Ask for 50 storeys, expect 46.
But as Witt points out, “There’s a lot more to it than whether a tower is 40 or 50 storeys tall. The city’s urban design department has embraced tall buildings; I think the resistance is politics.”
Given widespread antipathy to highrise, the councillors’ desire to keep buildings short is obviously intended to keep ward voters happy. Even though Toronto’s Official Plan envisions towers on the “avenues” — main streets — for many residents height remains problematic.
Besides, Toronto and every other community in the province exists in the shadow of the Ontario Municipal Board, the quasi-judicial body that has final say over development for more than a century. It can — and has — overruled compromise solutions that have been years in the works.
“There are natural and economic and construction limits to how tall a building should be,” Clewes insists, “before it becomes about ego. We’re trying to create an objective process but the debate soon gets completely subjective.”
But, Witt adds, complain though we might, these condo towers are fully occupied. Builders seem to have no trouble selling units, some as small as 301 square feet. Indeed, a more pressing issue is why there are so few family-sized units to accommodate the growing number of parents who choose to raise their kids downtown.
In Hong Kong, where residential towers now reach 88 storeys into the sky and even factories are highrise, height is assumed, taken for granted. Toronto isn’t there yet, but that’s where we’re headed like it or not. In fact, we’re well on the way. If the vertical city currently taking shape here is worth inhabiting in the future, it will be because of decisions made today.
But to get the right answers, we must first ask the right questions. So far, that has been too tall an order.